Colby College campus, pictured in 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

ATLANTA — Online shopping got a boost from COVID-19, and that trend of buying without seeing in person has spilled over into far bigger decisions now being made by high school seniors.

With student commitments mostly due by Saturday, some students face an unprecedented challenge to pick a well-fitting school without the benefit of a traditional campus tour.

By the time the pandemic shuttered campuses last spring, many high school seniors had already made pilgrimages to their top choices. This year’s crop of graduates lacked that advantage.

Colleges have reacted by implementing virtual tours. Though imperfect, the online videos and talks have given more families more information than they used to have.

“A lot of the schools have upped their game tremendously on virtual programming,” said Allison Grandits, an education consultant based in metro Atlanta.

They’re using eye-level cameras to produce remote walking tours. They’re letting students virtually sit in on classes. They’re arranging videoconferences with professors.

“They’re concerned about their enrollment and getting students, so they’re trying to be as accessible as they can while still doing so safely,” she said.

This has been a boon for students who cannot afford to travel, increasing their exposure to unfamiliar colleges.

“Every year we’ve had students where the first time that they’ll visit a campus is when they’re actually moving in,” said Tamika Hibbert, a high school counselor for the DeKalb County School District. “Seeing something virtually isn’t the same as actually being there on campus, but it gives them some insight.”

The head counselor at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Lithonia said the increased virtual access combined with the elimination of the traditional requirement for SAT and ACT scores has prompted many students to “step outside their comfort zone” and apply to colleges they might not have otherwise.

In one rural Georgia county, an organization funded by a state grant to increase postsecondary access for high-need students says the “total pivot” online has resulted in more contact with graduating seniors.

Dawn Harrison, the Thomas County coordinator for GEAR UP, which is funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, said the organization contracted with a company that provides virtual college tours. “I actually think we’re reaching more families due to the pandemic,” she said.

One of them, De’Asia Daniels, still wishes she could have seen some of the more than two dozen colleges that accepted her. She said she probably could not have afforded the out-of-state costs at the University of California, Berkley or the University of Florida, and Howard University and Atlanta’s Spelman College were more expensive than the University of Georgia, even with financial aid. That helped with her decision.

But she would have felt more comfortable making a final decision had she actually seen the campuses. Her mother has underlying health conditions that have prohibited travel during the pandemic. Daniels, 18, narrowed the field to two, ultimately selecting UGA, but wonders what it would have been like to attend Spelman, in a big city very different from Thomasville or Athens.

“I kind of wish I could have gone to both,” she said.

Similarly, Caren Kim, a senior in Gwinnett County, was accepted to several top-ranked colleges, and had narrowed her choice to two — Princeton and Johns Hopkins — but was tortured by the final decision.

“Seeing it online, you can’t really get a grasp of what it actually looks like and what it actually feels like,” said Kim, 17, who attends North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee.

Finally, after getting their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, she and her dad hopped in the car and drove to both campuses. Neither was offering a tour, but at least she got a look at the real thing.

She was impressed by the architecture and the “lively” campus at Princeton. “I want to go there,” she decided.

Their dilemma is a common one, said Eric Greenberg, president of the Greenberg Educational Group in New York, which advises students on college admissions.

“The energy of a school, it’s extremely hard to get a sense of it unless you have your feet on the ground,” said Greenberg, who said many of his clients have traveled to colleges during this pandemic, including at least one to the University of Georgia.

Greenberg said most campuses seem to be allowing self-guided tours if they’re not actually giving formal tours.

Indeed, some campuses feel compelled to give formal tours, with modifications for virus safety.

The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech turn away more students than they accept, but lesser-known institutions such as the University of North Georgia have to try a little harder, said Brett Morris, the retired lieutenant colonel overseeing enrollment there.

The main campus in Dahlonega (there are several campuses across North Georgia) is still hosting tours, albeit much smaller than before, with a couple of families at a time.

“Families need to see and touch and smell,” said Morris, UNG’s associate vice president for enrollment management. “We find that students who come for tours tend to enroll at a much higher rate than those who don’t,” he said, “so obviously we’re encouraging everybody to come pay us a visit. We are trying to be as accommodating as we can.”

Bob Dechman and his son were among the visitors at UNG this spring. They’d done the online tours there and at Kennesaw State University, but that wasn’t enough for them, so they signed up for guided tours at both.

Dechman, of Thomasville, said they weren’t allowed to see the dormitories or the dining hall at either campus, but got a better sense of each. He was also able to visit both financial aid offices to get a clearer picture of the bottom line than he could online.

His son, Bradley, 18, has made his top choice, but the family was awaiting the final paperwork so Dechman wasn’t ready to disclose his pick during a recent interview. “Absolutely the tour helped,” he said.

Rob Phillips and his son also visited UNG. He was accepted there and at another Georgia campus that wasn’t offering tours. They also got to tour the University of Alabama, and his son, Kyle, 18, was impressed.

The Alpharetta dad said he thinks the tour, with its presentations and the opportunity to meet professors, put his son “over the line” for Alabama.

“A kid needs to have something like that when they’re picking where they’re going to go for the next four years of their life,” he said.

Greenberg, the New York consultant, said he thinks there could be consequences next year for colleges that didn’t allow visits or for families that didn’t take trips.

“With so much uncertainty this cycle,” he said, “my guess is there will be more people interested in transferring a year from now than there normally might be.”

Story by Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.